Is the Gillette “The Best Men Can Be” Ad a Good or Bad Thing?
If you’ve been on the internet in the past 48 hours, you’ve probably seen social media awash with reactions to a new ad from Gilette. It’s — divisive, to say the least. So much so, that we couldn’t stop talking about it. Is it a good thing, or a bad thing? Or merely a nothing? We chronicled our conversation below.
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NN: I am so tired of companies leveraging feminism to boost their own sales. For real though. This new Gillette ad is just the latest in our recent history of what Sarah Banet-Weiser, a professor of media and communications at the London School of Economics, terms “commodity activism,” where political messages are harnessed to boost both the reputation and sales of a company. And boy, does Gillette need it. More affordable services like Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s are popular with millennials (maybe in part because they don’t mark up prices for women’s razors simply because they’re for women, unlike Gillette), leading to a shrink in their market share from 70% in 2010 to 54% in 2016. So, I’m not exactly bowled over by their gamble for this new ad. They’ve been profiting off the very toxic masculinity they criticize in the ad, for over a century, and now that their sales are down and they’re losing the game, they decide to jump on the bandwagon of social justice issues? Thanks, but no thanks.
#MeToo is a movement that is fighting against systemic abuses of power, a fight that feminists have been waging for years. It is exhausting, complicated, and ongoing. For a multibillion-dollar company to try and condense the kind of violence and abuse women experience into a 1:48 minute ad, which at the most, showcases some catcalling and mansplaining as the problems women face, just seems like a joke. And as feminists, our choices are to either support a company profiting off our struggles, or the men who are so threatened by a call to ‘be better’? That feels like a false dichotomy. What this ad does, is create battle lines — either you’re for it, or against it; either you’re a feminist and support Gillette (by purchasing their products and making sure they trend on social media) or you have a problem with this PC culture that has gone too far (and you’re making sure Gillette trends on social media). Either way, the conversation is now a very loud argument over feminism, #MeToo, and toxic masculinity. But we need to be paying attention to what’s going on behind the curtain and ask — are people monetizing off collective action? Are they making a profit from social and political movements that actually oppose these very entities? And are we okay with supporting this?
LG: SO much to unpack there! And while I don’t necessarily disagree with any of it, I’m not as worked up.
First, I’d argue you’re not doing the ad full justice — it’s only 1:48 minutes, sure, but it packs a lot into that time frame. To me, it’s not meant to be about women’s problems; toxic masculinity isn’t only about the ways men interact with women, but also about how men interact with each other. That’s part of what makes it ‘toxic’ — it literally limits everyone. While the ad lightly references catcalling and mansplaining, and spends more time on calling out masculinity policing (bullying, “boys don’t cry,” etc), to me, this is arguably a pro, not a con: it challenges some of the root attitudes and behaviors behind catcalling and mansplaining, not just the actions themselves. Call me a consequentialist, but if people watch this video and think more or differently about masculinity, even for a second, it’s a net positive for me. I don’t really care so much that the corporation’s intent is to cash in; that’s kind of the purpose of a corporation.
What I find most fascinating, though, is the growing trend of corporate advertising acting as keepers of societal conscience. Corporations have always influenced social change, (they have the money for it), but until recently, it’s been from a side-project, CSR-kind of way — a token to offset the problems created by their product, manufacturing, or general pursuit of maximum profit. Now, corporations are staking their name to social causes — think Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad.
What I’m most worried about, actually, is this perpetuating ‘woke consumerism,’ (as you termed it, Nadia, in an offline conversation), which seems like the obvious (and more pathetic) successor to the 2000’s ‘slacktivism.’ I don’t mind corporations using social causes as marketing gambits (if done well and I agree with the messaging, of course; Ariel’s #ShareTheLoad is an example that aimed at a good message but failed in execution for me). What I do mind is someone thinking they’ve changed for the better, or changed the world, just because they’ve bought a certain product; they haven’t. Buying a Gillette razor will not make you a better man; buying Ariel’s detergent won’t make you an equal partner. But that’s not something I can pin on corporations — I think people are responsible for being self-aware of their own consumption choices and reasons, and their own actions and self-improvement.
KB: As much as the idea of social causes being used by corporate marketing machines makes me uncomfortable, I’m going to take a few devil’s advocate positions here. The first is this: while I may not love the corporate hijacking of social causes for profit, I see no harm in companies taking a position on changing social mores or pushing the boundaries of social change. Let’s face it — they have the money, the reach, the eyeballs, to get a message out to millions, if not billions, of people; wouldn’t we rather they use that airtime to promote social justice than, say, tell us how sharp their razors are?
Second, Gillette, specifically, as a manufacturer of men’s shaving products, for decades contributed to the old-school messaging around masculinity. They had a hand in building these notions of manhood that we now find harmful — so, I consider it almost a responsibility of those who helped to create this ill that they should help to dismantle it.
Third, we, as autonomous, thinking beings, have the power to choose to show our disdain or discomfort in a very clear way: we can choose not to buy these products if we find companies’ messaging so distasteful. In short: these companies are using social causes to capture our attention because it works: it gets us talking about them, and it sells more products. If it didn’t sell more products, you can bet they wouldn’t keep doing it. We have the power to decide whether Gillette’s strategy will succeed; so far, by all accounts, most people don’t really have a problem with it.
And the 10,000-foot devil’s advocate position: who really “owns” a social cause or idea? And who gets to decide who is allowed to talk about it or not talk about it? Feminism does not belong only to feminist activists who devote their entire lives to fighting for gender equality. Arguably, the cause and mission is helped if the ideas become so mainstream that even risk-averse corporations are willing to publicly support them. Gillette’s decision to do a feminist rebrand shows just how far we’ve come. Let’s face it, Gillette accomplished something great: for the past three days, the whole world has been talking about toxic masculinity. And surely we can agree that’s a good thing?
Time will ultimately tell — when customers flock to or abandon these products — whether this approach was successful in capturing the zeitgeist and reflecting important values/emotions to companies’ customer bases. We will know, from the impact on Gillette’s sales, whether this video was “good” or “bad.” In the meantime, the fact that we’re having a conversation about redefining masculinity is undoubtedly good.
LG: You mention emotions there, Karla, and I think that’s a key word that gets back to Nadia’s point about battle lines. This ad is clearly intended to play on emotions — as all advertisements are. And it’s a fine line to walk. Certainly emotions prompt progressive efforts, but should they guide them? We live in a time when emotions are frequently given precedence over fact, and that’s dangerous, no matter what your socio-political stances are. That’s what really threatens to obscure the “exhausting and complicated” work, as Nadia puts it, of dismantling toxic masculinity (or any other societal ill).
NN: Also — what if Gillette is playing a real long-game, over and above talking about men. What if their real target, with this ad, is to make women feel good about the brand and their products, since women arguably make decisions about household purchases even if it’s men who are actually using the product. Could that be a thing? The ultimate long game?
Liesl, I don’t think the trend is for corporations to act as keepers of societal conscience, but rather to keep their ears to the ground and profit off issues that would inspire strong opinions, one way or the other. Which is exactly what Gillette did. Do they really have that much at stake by planting a flag in the sand and declaring a side? Because data shows that millennials are willing to pay more to brands that represent their core beliefs, and prefer companies whose values align with their own. Let’s not pretend this is anything more than a good business move, for a brand that’s a sinking ship. Putting your name to a cause pays off.
What do you think? Join our conversation in the comments!